For an East Asian Union: Rethinking Asia's Cold War Alliances

By Francis, Neil | Harvard International Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

For an East Asian Union: Rethinking Asia's Cold War Alliances


Francis, Neil, Harvard International Review


At the conclusion of the Second World War, the United States established bilateral military alliances in the Asia-Pacific intended to contain Soviet and Chinese communist expansion in the region. US security strategy now focuses largely on combating terrorism and denying weapons of mass destruction to so-called rogue states. It is a strategy that cannot be implemented with geographic mutual defense treaties formed to address conventional military threats. Furthermore, the United States has demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq that it is prepared to pursue its global security interests unilaterally, even at the risk of its political relations with traditional alliance partners. What happened over Iraq between the United States and its European allies could equally happen between the United States and its Asian allies over Taiwan or North Korea with serious consequences for the interests of countries in that region. East Asian powers need to develop a collective security strategy for the region that does not rely on the United States' participation. Prudence suggests that East Asian countries need to take the opportunity offered by the recently inaugurated East Asian Summit (EAS) to begin the process of developing an East Asian community as the first step toward the realization of an East Asian Union. This will occur only if led by a strong, proactive Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

China is now the world's second-largest economy, almost two-thirds as large as the United States in terms of domestic purchasing power. In 2005 China overtook Japan to become the world's third-largest exporter of goods and services. In 2004 it was the third-largest trading partner with ASEAN; the second largest with Japan, Australia, and India; and the largest with the Republic of Korea. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has estimated that in 2004, in purchasing power parity dollar terms, China's military expenditure was US$161.1 billion, the second highest in the world. The Pentagon has estimated that in 2005 China's military expenditure was two to three times larger than its official figure of US$29.9 billion.

China's growing economic and military strength along with the United States' preoccupation with its new security agenda has made some East Asian countries increasingly apprehensive. Particularly since September 11, bilateral military alliances have become less relevant to US security interests, and the United States will likely reduce its military presence in the East Asian region. Parts of Asia believe that Chinese hegemonic aspirations for East Asia could emerge if the United States were to disengage from the region. Fear of China and the possibility that it harbors hegemonic aspirations were among the factors that led to the creation of ASEAN in 1967 and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1993. Engaging China in an East Asian union in the future would ensure it will pay a high price in loss of trade and investment if it acts against the interests of the union's other members.

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Prospects for an East Asian Community

In December 2005 ASEAN hosted an inaugural East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur. The summit involved the 10 ASEAN countries; the ASEAN+3 countries of China, Japan, and South Korea; as well as Australia, New Zealand, and India. The summit declaration of December 14, 2005, described the meeting as a forum for "dialogue on broad strategic, political and economic issues of common interest and concern with the aim of promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity in East Asia." The declaration also noted that the summit could "play a significant role in community building in this region."

ASEAN would work "in partnership with the other participants of the East Asian Summit," but ASEAN was to retain leadership, preventing control of East Asian community building by either the ASEAN+3 countries, which China could dominate, or the 16 EAS countries, which some felt could steer the EAS toward what would be an unwelcome "Western" agenda. …

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